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Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy: Transforming Nature in Early New England

Author(s):Roberts, Strother E.
Reviewer(s):Land, Jeremy

Published by EH.Net (September 2020)

Strother E. Roberts, Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy: Transforming Nature in Early New England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019. vi + 271 pp. $45 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-8122-5127-2.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Jeremy Land, Department of History and Ethnology, University of Jyväskylä.

 

Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy is a welcome addition to the historiography of several subsets of literature, including but not limited to colonial America, Atlantic World, New England, and Native American history. However, its most important contributions come from the intricately developed combination of environmental and economic history by Strother Roberts (Bowdoin College). He deftly weaves seemingly disparate narratives and aspects of the Connecticut Valley’s environmental history into the larger, transnational economy of the eighteenth-century Atlantic World. In asking how and to what extent the Connecticut Valley’s environment was altered by its integration into the global economy, Roberts highlights the ways in which humans, both Native Americans and European settlers, altered the environs of the Connecticut Valley to meet the consumer demands of the local and Atlantic economies.

In five chapters, an introduction, and a short epilogue, Roberts provides a dense and detailed analysis and history of the Connecticut Valley’s environment from just before European settlers arrived through the end of the eighteenth century. Throughout, Roberts makes it painfully clear that environmental history must be intimately local in its scope, while maintaining a clear eye on the global forces that encourages local actors to exploit their environments in particular ways. This book, therefore, is a prime example of a history that tangibly connects the local and the global. In the introduction, Roberts concurs with William Cronon in his famous environmental history, Changes in the Land, when he argues that commodity markets are intricately tied to environments. However, Roberts takes an additional step to show how this interaction “predated capitalist modernity” by exploring the changes Native Americans made to the landscape to meet the growing demand of the fur trade (p. 8).

In chapter one, Roberts describes the environment of the Connecticut River Valley prior to 1614 when Dutch explorers first arrived. Beaver dominated the valley, and as a result, the Connecticut River flowed steadily throughout the year as beaver ponds were created along its path. These ponds also sustained a wide variety of other species that helped feed and clothe Native Americans. Once Europeans arrived and began to trade with Native Americans for beaver pelts, Native Americans hunted beavers at an ever-increasing rate, initiating cascading effects on the environment of the valley. As beaver colonies were eliminated, the accompanying beaver ponds dried up, decimating entire ecosystems and reliant species. The river’s flow was no longer regulated, leading to flooding and increasing levels of erosion. By the turn of the century, the valley was unrecognizable to Native Americans who inhabited the area, and European settlers arriving in the valley encountered an already altered environment.

European agriculture, the subject of chapter two, slowly consumed native lands, and the Connecticut Valley’s environment was radically transformed from subsistence-based needs to market-focused crop and livestock production by the end of the seventeenth century. Roberts explores how the Connecticut Valley, like New England in general, developed intricate economic ties with the Caribbean and other mainland colonies. By the 1750s, regional specialization in the North American colonies pushed settlers in the Connecticut Valley to focus on wheat, livestock, and timber production to provision the rest of the British Empire. This specialization drastically reshaped the Connecticut Valley from a fertile, species-rich region into an agricultural production zone that resembled Europe more than the beaver-dominated valley of the first chapter.

Of these specialized goods , timber was simultaneously the most abundant and scarce resource that dominated the local economy. Chapter three details how European settlers arrived with a well-established understanding and practice of woodland conservation, though enacting and preserving those practices varied over time. Initially, the chilly winters and fledgling agricultural economy of New England pushed settlers to fell trees further and further into the ample forests of the region, but as the population grew and agricultural and livestock needs diversified, colonial and local governments pursued legal limits and policies to protect the dwindling timber resources of the region. Nevertheless, Roberts shows how regional and Atlantic market forces convinced Connecticut Valley residents and towns to abandon timber preservation in order to clear more land for agriculture and market production, leaning on regional marketplaces to find timber for their energy needs.

In the following chapter, perhaps the most important of the book, the region’s timber production placed Connecticut Valley residents squarely in the crosshairs of imperial efforts to both control and earmark the timber trade of the region for naval outfitting of the Royal Navy. The efforts of the British government to regulate the local use and felling of timber in the Connecticut Valley created a festering anger and antipathy toward imperial rule. Roberts provides numerous examples of local resistance to imperial policies and nicely situates the local resistance of Connecticut Valley residents with the growing regional and continental resistance of other North American colonies. By the 1750s and 1760s, settlers in the Connecticut Valley regularly ignored imperial limits on timber production, and colonial governments and courts frequently refused to enforce imperial policies or efforts to punish guilty parties. While placing the valley within the greater political and economic struggle of the coming American Revolution, Roberts remains focused on how these developments affected the environment, noting that salmon disappeared from Connecticut waters by 1800 due to the cumulative effects of sawmill waste and sawdust from timber production.

In the fifth and final chapter, Roberts explains how livestock production became a vital component of the Connecticut Valley’s economy. Market forces again were the primary reason why valley settlers sought to expand their production and trade in livestock and preserved meats. Ports such as Boston and New York continued to grow throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as did their appetites for provisions for commercial and fishing fleets. In addition, the West Indies required an enormous supply of livestock and preserved meats to feed its massive slave populations, and Connecticut Valley residents were more than happy to meet that need. However, livestock production is enormously destructive of local environments, especially as lands are cleared and waters redirected for its use. Combined with agriculture and timber production, livestock production fundamentally altered the natural environment of the Connecticut River Valley. Roberts closes the book with an epilogue discussing the valley’s changes post-1800 when the Montague Canal opened, providing even greater access to the region’s interior to river-bound vessels. In addition, the growing industrialization of the area, initially reliant on waterpower, hastened the environmental change caused by humans.

On the whole, the book is enormously beneficial to understanding the ways in which the local environment is inextricably linked, via human activity, to the larger, global economy. The fourth chapter is by far the most important and impactful in its clear view of conflicting local and imperial needs, but the first chapter is essential reading for those seeking to comprehend the environment and economy of Native Americans prior to Europeans arriving. It should be essential reading for any Early American or Atlantic seminar, especially those discussing environmental history.

Jeremy Land is currently a CRISES Fellow at the University of Jyväskylä and, starting in 2021, will be a Postdoctoral Fellow in Economic and Social History at the University Helsinki. His recent articles include “Colonial Military Garrisons as Labor‐Market Shocks: Quebec City and Boston, 1760–1775” (with Vincent Geloso) Social Science Quarterly (2020) and “Illicit Affairs: Philadelphia’s Trade with Lisbon before Independence, 1700-1775” (with Rodrigo Dominguez) Historia (2019).

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Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Historical Geography
International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):16th Century
17th Century
18th Century